Bell’s time in Pittsburgh was unfulfilling

By Joe Smeltzer

Pittsburgh has good reason to miss Josh Bell.

He came to the big leagues just as the Pirates were beginning their descent from a fine wine to a warm can of Dr. Pepper.

We haven’t had too many reasons to smile over the past four years, but there were times when Bell was one of them, especially in the spring of 2019.

For about 60 days, Bell was as electric to watch as any Pirate has been in the past three decades.

His statistics— 12 home runs and a .390 average in May—  and ability to hit a baseball to Pakistan gave fans younger than 45 a taste of what watching Wilver Dornell Stargell may have been like.

Stargell, however, kept it up for almost two decades and is in the Hall of Fame.

Bell kept it up for just two months, and the only chance he has at the hall is if it adds a wing for players who used Dr. Dre for their walkup music.

The rest of Bell’s time in Pittsburgh, which came to an end Christmas Eve, was disappointing.

He definitely wasn’t an outright bust the way Bucco Bums like Chad Hermansen, JJ Davis and Tony Sanchez were.

No, his time in Pittsburgh is more similar to that of Pedro Alvarez, both stylistically (hit a home run, make an error, repeat) and in that, both left Pittsburgh having failed to clear the bar that had been set for them when they arrived.

Yes, the Pirates drafted Bell 61st overall and Alvarez second overall, but that’s misleading.

The reason teams passed Bell over had nothing to do with ability. Bell was the top corner outfield prospect in the draft according to Baseball America. The reason he slipped was because Bell told teams he planned on becoming a Texas Longhorn.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington took a chance, drafted Bell early in the second round, and convinced him to sign.

Bell showcased what he could do in the minors, and when he became the Pirates full time first baseman in 2017, we thought we might be getting a star.

We got a star for one April and one May, and an average-or-worse player for the rest.

Not that Bell’s time here didn’t have its moments.

We won’t forget his second major league at bat, when he pulverized a grand slam against the Cubs on national television.

Or that walk-off double in a rainstorm to cap a five-game sweep of the Brewers two summers ago.

We’ll remember those, but we should also remember Bell coming in a bad defensive first baseman, and going out a bad defensive first baseman.

We’ll remember this past summer, when Bell played the worst baseball of his career.

I, for one, will remember the 2018 season, when Bell, whose main asset was and is his power, managed just 12 home runs over 148 games played, in an era when it’s easier than ever to hit home runs.

For those who have read to this point and still want Bob Nutting’s head on a stake for trading this guy, here’s a deeper statistical explanation.

If you don’t know what OPS+ is, the basic gist is that it’s a way to measure how productive a player is offensively compared to the rest of the league, with 100 being the median.

Here are Bell’s OPS+ numbers by season:

2016 (45 games): 108

2017: 109

2018: 111

2019: 142

2020: 83

In Layman’s terms:

OK

OK

OK

Very good

Very bad.

Judging by those numbers, if Bell could have been a DH or, wait for it… a league-average fielder, he’d be looked at as a solid big leaguer. But add in Bell’s poor play at first base, you have, at best, an average overall player.

No. 55 brought a lot of excitement and temporary happiness to Pirates fans at a time when there wasn’t a lot to smile about. When the organization talked him out of going to college, however, the Pirates had realistic hope that they were getting a perennial star. Instead, Bell’s flame burned out just as fast as it lit up.

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